Nuzzles, cuddles, and walks were available in abundance as people were confined to their homes during the pandemic, holed up with their pets, who were blissfully unaware of the mortifying circumstances of the outside world. But now that the United States appears to be turning a corner (fingers crossed) with increased vaccinations, you’ll likely want to venture outside your home with greater frequency, potentially leaving your dog or other pet wondering where the hell all the nuzzles and cuddles went.
Since the last thing you want is to give your pets a sense of separation anxiety, you’ll have to prepare them for your more prolonged absences. Here’s how you might help ease the anxious burden for your dogs, so they can cope without your constant affection.
How to deal with minor separation anxiety from your dog
It’s hard not to grab your dog’s face and bid it a sappy farewell when you leave for the day, but if you’re worried about your pup pawing at the window and whining as you head for the door, don’t make a big deal out of the separation. People have a key role to play here, and it’s vital that you make leaving seem as normal as anything else. This is easier when your pet has a more subdued form of anxiety that doesn’t send it into complete hysterics when you leave.
When it comes to dogs — which are far more likely to suffer both minor and acute form of separation anxiety than other household pets — the Humane Society recommends that you “don’t make a big deal out of arrivals and departures — ignore your dog for the first few minutes then calmly pet them.”
This tactic is tangentially related to another concept that should prove helpful when dealing with an anxious pet: counterconditioning. Since your dog is likely to associate your absence with anxiety, you have to create a new meaning for your absences, and the easiest way to do that is with food.
The ASPCA illustrates how you might counter-condition a fearful dog with the almighty power of treats:
Over time, the dog learns that whatever he fears actually predicts good things for him…To develop this kind of association, every time you leave the house, you can offer your dog a puzzle toy stuffed with food that will take him at least 20 to 30 minutes to finish.
Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, Director of the Thinking Dog Centre at the City University of New York, tells Lifehacker that making the transition easier for your pets will make the process easier for people, too. She wrote in an email:
Leaving home for short time periods of time can help, working with puppy sitters and dog walkers while you’re still at home can help your pets get familiar with these new friends, and if you have the flexibility to transition to work slowly, consider working from home a few days a week.
Another tool that might prove useful is leaving a shirt or other garment that smells like you behind, so your pet can lay with it and glean some comfort from your scent. And since dogs are so attentive to certain words — as anyone who has to spell out w-a-l-k around their pooch can attest — you can use this to your advantage as well. The Humane Society recommends that you “establish a word or action that you use every time you leave that tells your dog you’ll be back.”
How to deal with severe separation anxiety from your dog
If your dog has a more severe case of separation anxiety, you’ll understand it through some telltale behaviours: defecating or urinating on the floor, howling and barking, chewing furniture, digging, trying to escape, and so on. While these are general indications of separation anxiety, they can be illustrative of more acute bouts when exhibited excessively.
First, it’s essential that these behaviours aren’t symptoms of another medical or psychological issue, so it might be necessary to consult a veterinarian if something like defecating or destroying furniture occurs in excess. After that, it’ll probably be necessary to start a desensitization and counterconditioning plan with a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB), the ASPCA recommends.
Basically, this will be a longer process that involves introducing your dog to pre-departure cues, and re-articulating what they mean. As the ASPCA notes, grabbing your keys doesn’t have to mean you’re heading for the door, so you can start to acclimate your dog to these triggers without actually leaving, thus nullifying your dog’s anxious association.
Another thing you might try is the graduated or “mock” departure. As you may have guessed, it’s a simulation of actually leaving, or a trial-run that will better acclimate your dog to being on their own and not reacting to the telltale signs of departing (closing doors, grabbing keys, putting on a jacket). It can be simple; a bathroom door could suffice. If you make your dog wait on the outside of the bathroom door while you’re on the other side, and gradually increase the time of your separation, it might start to ease the burden on your dog.
Or, as the ASPCA puts it:
Gradually increase the length of time you wait on the other side of the door, out of your dog’s sight. You can also work on getting your dog used to predeparture cues as you practice the stay. For example, ask your dog to stay. Then put on your coat, pick up your purse and go into the bathroom while your dog continues to stay.
Most importantly, understand that it’s a gradual process when it comes to acclimating a dog to more prolonged periods on their own. Professional help might be warranted, too, especially if your pup shows more intense signs of anxiety when you reach for the car keys.